PITTSBURG, Kan. — With the November election quickly approaching, the Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a candidate forum Monday to give candidates for Crawford County sheriff a chance to weigh in on a range of issues.

"My experience in law enforcement spans over 25 years — I spent 11 years on patrol, 4 years in special operations, 6 years a captain, a year and a half as sheriff," said Sheriff Danny Smith, who was appointed to the position last year but is running his first election campaign this year as a Democrat and facing a challenge from Republican J.J. Karlinger.

"During that time I have gained crucial and fundamental knowledge of the operations of the sheriff’s office, and along with that I’ve also gained partnerships at the state and local level," Smith said.

Karlinger, for his part, pointed to his experience not only in law enforcement — formerly with the Pittsburg Police Department and currently part-time with the Girard Police Department — but also his current full-time work with the nonprofit KVC Kansas, which provides care and services for foster children and foster families.

"So I think one of the things that sets me apart is the fact that I have diversity in my experience," he said. "Really it’s as diverse as the community that we serve."

As the Morning Sun previously covered Smith’s campaign when he announced his candidacy early this year, we offered Karlinger the opportunity to respond to some questions prior to Monday’s candidate forum. In his response, as he also mentioned during the forum, Karlinger noted that Crawford County voters have not had the chance to pick between two candidates for sheriff since the 1990s.

"I'm not part of the current system that has been in place for decades as we've watched our crime rates skyrocket," he wrote in an email.

Issues discussed during the forum included mental health, which Smith first brought up — saying that a statewide mental health crisis is the biggest challenge the sheriff’s office faces — before it was specifically asked about in a later question.

"It is an issue that has been going on for over 10 years in the state of Kansas, and the biggest problem with that is it’s turned our jails and our prisons into mental health hospitals," Smith said, "and the people that are going through this mental health crisis are not getting the help that they need."

A new grant-funded partnership on addiction and mental health treatment between the sheriff’s office and the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas is beginning to help alleviate the problem though, Smith said.

Karlinger said that sheriff’s deputies interacting with people with mental health issues is unavoidable.

"So we have to make sure our deputies have as much training as possible, our corrections officers have as much training as possible," he said.

There were times during the forum when Smith and Karlinger took shots at each other over their respective records and experience.

"You build trust through building relationships and transparency," Karlinger said. "Mr. Smith said that he’s built up a lot of trust in the community, and I’ve been out in the community and usually one of the first things I hear is that they didn’t even know that he was the sheriff."

In terms of management "a lot of it is trying to get everybody on the same page, to know what the mission is at the sheriff’s office and that we are trying to provide a service to the citizens, to the inmates, and I think we’ve got a very good team over there," Smith said.

Karlinger, however, questioned Smith’s leadership of the sheriff’s department.

"I know Mr. Smith said they’re all on the same page but a lot of the deputies that I spoke with apparently aren’t on that same page, they’re on a different page," he said. "There’s a lot of confusion that’s going on and that’s something that I would intend to get everyone on the same page."

Later in the forum, both candidates answered a question about lawsuits and liability.

"I understand Mr. Karlinger has had a short law enforcement career but he knows nothing about jail operations, and that is the biggest liability in the county, and it’s something that I have experience with," Smith said. "I’ve managed it. I haven’t had a lawsuit in the year and a half that I’ve been sheriff and I hope that I don’t have them, but it’s one of those things that you have to make sure that there is training and that people are doing things that they’re supposed to be doing."

Karlinger also questioned Smith’s record, however, when it came to the issue of managing the jail.

"As far as the jail goes, yeah there’s already set forth what is required of you: you need to follow this to the letter of the law," he said. "I know during Mr. Smith’s time as jail administrator there was an escape, so there was certainly something that was awry there that, you know, that obviously needed to be addressed that wasn’t."

One issue where the two candidates diverged was on whether the county should follow Cherokee County’s lead in passing a resolution standing against "red flag" gun control laws that would allow courts to order people’s firearms to be temporarily confiscated at the request of law enforcement or family members.

"The Constitution guarantees us our 2nd Amendment rights," Karlinger said. "We take an oath to uphold that Constitution, when we violate that — we’ve had too many people that have shed blood for those rights and we owe it to protect those rights, so yes, I would support signing that resolution. I’m a fervent defender of the 2nd Amendment and I would absolutely sign that resolution."

While also acknowledging that law enforcement officers take an oath to uphold the Constitution, Smith said he didn’t think a resolution against red flag laws was necessary.

"When it comes to 2nd Amendment rights, we live in a state where those rights are secure. I don’t think it’s necessary to sign that resolution. I’ve looked it over. I think the rights of the citizens and their guns and firearms are secure," he said.

"I know the Kansas Sheriff’s Association doesn’t support the red flag laws and I know there’s been some legislative attempts to try to get that passed, but I don’t think anybody’s guns are in jeopardy of being taken. I’m certainly not going to come to your house and take your guns."

In his closing remarks, Smith again pointed to his more than two decades of law enforcement experience.

"I think I’m building on a strong foundation of law enforcement from my predecessors. When you work for Sheriff Sandy Horton for 18 years and Dan Peak for 7 years, those guys and many others in that department were my mentors, and they did a spectacular job. They taught me what it was to be professional, to be hardworking, to respect the public, respect this office. I’ve been doing that for 25 years in this line of work, serving the citizens of this county," he said.

"There’s just no substitute for experience, and you know, I just think Mr. Karlinger might be the nicest guy in the world but it is a big leap to go from being a part-time officer at Girard PD to being the sheriff of Crawford County."

Karlinger, meanwhile, said he had been spending time talking to people in the community and getting their feedback.

"They’re ready for a change," he said. "They’re ready for a change in attitude, a change in ideas, and certainly ready for a change in the outcome. Our skyrocketing crime rates need to be fixed. I have plans in place that can fix it."

He encouraged those who weren’t familiar with his policy proposals — which include a community advisory board, a citizens academy, and a teen driver program, among other plans — to find out more through his campaign website and social media channels. Smith is also on Facebook.